Warren Peace Chapter 1 – The Attack
The young rabbit zigzagged frantically as he sprinted, but his pursuer kept doggedly on his tail. Cuetip’s heart pounded, his breath rasped, and fear pulsed through his entire body. He veered sharply around a bush, claws digging deep furrows into the hot, dry earth. The fox, vicious and predatory, would not be shaken off and followed closely, snapping at his backside. Cuetip had tried everything he knew to escape, but the fox had stuck with him throughout. The muscles in his legs and back were screaming in agony, and soon he would be too exhausted to run any more. Everything would be over – death in the sun.
If only he could find an entrance – a dark, welcoming sanctuary on the sun-bright hillside. He was sure that there was a burrow around here somewhere, if only the juggernaut of death behind him would give him a few seconds respite in which to get his bearings. The fox wasn’t about to give him any quarter, however, and it growled with savage triumph as it made a swipe at his back legs with an outstretched paw.
Cuetip went tumbling over the short, dry grass, the blazing sun blinding him as it flashed across his vision, a cloud of dust rising up around him as he struggled frenetically to regain his feet. His mind raced, and he thought longingly of the peaceful calm that had been his just a few minutes ago.
The sky was a deep blue from horizon to horizon, broken only by the fiercely hot sun. Cuetip had nibbled off a blade of the short dry grass, pulled a face, and looked around for a dandelion leaf. He lazily swivelled his ears, searching half-heartedly for any untoward sounds. As always, he heard only the liquid trill of a lark somewhere in the blue above and the occasional tick as a gorse bush reacted to the heat. A bee buzzed fatly nearby. All was well.
Much of his extended family were scattered about the hillside, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. Like him, most were feeding, but one or two of the more nervous youngsters squatted uneasily in the shade of the bushes, not daring to venture too far from a bolt hole.
Old Grizz, the most senior member of the warren at Farmend Field, sat upright near the top of the bank, head turning this way and that as he kept watch on his charges. Grizz was a bit past it these days, thought Cuetip, but it made the old rabbit feel useful to have the lookout’s job. Besides, no one else wanted to do it. After all, they were safe enough here.
The twisting burrows and chambers of the warren undermined Farmend Field, a steep, roughly rectangular slope, south facing so that it caught the sun. A long time ago it had borne crops, but these days it was covered with rough grass and gorse. Along the top, northern edge of this incline stretched smooth, flat rock and rounded boulders and, beyond a short stretch of rocky ground, the scree-covered slopes of a towering hill. In theory, a single lookout on the ridge of Farmend Field could see all around, and give plenty of warning to retreat underground if need be.
To the west squatted a long-abandoned farm, the stone walls overgrown and crumbling, rusty machinery nestling in the nettles. The eastern boundary dropped sharply in a flinty cliff onto a tumble of rocks, and on the fourth side, at the foot of the slope, was their water supply – a sparkling beck that danced swiftly over smooth pebbles.
True, this meant that they could not burrow too deeply at the lower reaches of the slope for fear of flooding, but there was plenty of space under the higher reaches for all their needs. The rock on the North side extended deep below the surface, preventing them from extending the warren laterally, but Farmend Field itself was large enough to accommodate the whole warren comfortably. This was an ideal home for the rabbits, comfortable and safe. Had been for years. There had been no sign of danger for as long as anyone could remember, save Grizz. And yet the old male, ostensibly their leader, had insisted that they continue to keep watch.
“Don’t know you’re born, you young ‘uns” he’d grumbled, earlier that morning. “In my day we were allus being chased by dogs and shot at by big two-legs folk. Kept us fit. Had to be keen-eyed. Had to be swift and watchful. AND keen-eyed.”
“You said that already, Grampy” tiny Lucien had grumbled.
“Bah! Danger’ll come again one day, you mark my words, youngster. That’s why we’ve got to keep our eyes sharp! Pah! We should be doing more, much more, but you’re all too lazy these days!”
“What more should we be doing?” Ernestine had asked, humouring the old rabbit. Ernestine, the second oldest rabbit in the warren, was sensible, sociable, and well respected by most.
“Lots of things!” gruffed Grizz, “Lookouts on all entrances, for one! Stocking up on food for another – them larders are pathetically low, you know! And we should have trained messengers for fast communication! We should make more designated latrines inside the warren, in case we can’t get out! So many things we ought to do! And you lot – you lot just laze about, eating! In my day we had efficient defences, we knew how best to look after ourselves! Hrmph. In my day!”
Rant over, Grizz had subsided into a low grumble.
“In your day, were you ever chased by a dinosaur, Great Grandad Grizz?” young Lily had asked innocently, bringing a round of laughter from those in earshot.
After Grizz had tramped grumpily up to his lookout post, Ernestine and Cuetip had shared an amused smile as Lily had scampered by, chasing her brother Lucien. The twins had been laughing at a game of their own devising. The pair had been born recently to Ernestine’s sister Twitch, and were not long out of the nursery burrow. Lily and Lucien looked exactly alike – dark-furred with pale rumps – except for the tip of Lucien’s left ear, which always flopped down.
“Now, watch it you two!” Ernestine had warned, “Careful you don’t fall into a gorse! I don’t want to be licking any wounds tonight!” Then she had added, in that strange way of Aunties everywhere, “And don’t come running to me if you break a leg!”
“OK, Auntie! Ooof!” Lucien had gasped as his sister bowled into him and knocked him rolling and giggling through the grass. They had scampered off down towards the stream, shouting a squeaky “Bye!” to Ernestine and Cuetip.
“B- B- Bye!” Cuetip had piped, cheerfully, but before he’d got it out the twins had gone.
Cuetip knew that he was a bit of a mystery to most of the rabbits of the warren. He spent a lot of time on his own, and no-one could work out whether that was because he was embarrassed at the way he spoke, or whether his stammer was as a result of his solitude and the fact that he didn’t get much practice at talking. Oh, he was friendly enough – polite and civil to all – but he did not have any really close friends. Some of the less-polite rabbits made frequent fun of his impediment, and if any of the others ever thought about him at all, they simply assumed that he liked his own company. The only rabbit he seemed at ease with was Ernestine.
Cuetip had noticed that she had turned her gaze from the happy youngsters as they vanished over a rise, and was watching Hobb trying to clean his tail. As he had bent to the task, the big young male kept losing his balance and falling over backwards. After a couple of failed attempts, others would have found a handy rock to support their backside, but this did not occur to Hobb. He just kept right on reaching for his nether regions and toppling into a heap, convinced that if he just kept on trying, his sheer persistence would lead eventually to success. He was not the brightest of rabbits.
Ernestine, however, did not care that Hobb was something of a pea-brain. She admired him for his straightforward simplicity, his undoubted strength, and his loyal friendship. He was, in fact, her favourite friend.
Close to Hobb, a sneer on her unattractive face, sat Fluffers, Ernestine’s (and indeed, Cuetip’s) least favourite. She had been in conversation with Heather, a friendly little soul, who hadn’t looked too happy to be talking to Fluffers.
“Perhaps I’ll wander over there in a while and rescue poor Heather” Ernestine had commented.
“G- good th- thinking” Cuetip had managed.
He had glanced back up the hill, idly wondering whether old Grizz had remembered to eat anything, but the grassy lookout knoll was empty.
“Er- Ernestine?” he had begun.
“Where’s the daft old idiot gone now?” she had muttered, following his gaze. The forgetful old thing had probably dozed off again, or imagined some tasty clover among the boulders behind him and wandered off after it. She had started to hop lazily up towards the lookout knoll to call him back.
A sudden movement from one of the bushes flanking the vacant lookout post had startled them both, and a dark, round object had tumbled down the hill. It had bounced twice on the coarse grass, before coming to a stop by their feet.
Cuetip could not focus on it at first. Then he had felt a chilling shock, as if he had been plunged into icy water, as he had recognised two blank white eyes staring at him out of Grizz’s severed head, bloody and tattered at the neck where it had been torn from his body.
They had both recoiled with fear as a shadow passed over them. They had turned quickly, Cuetip gasping, but saw with relief that it was only Hobb.
“Hi Ernie! Hi Cuetip!” he had boomed, unaware of anything wrong. He had looked down at the object in the grass. “Hi Grizz!” His smile had faded as realisation dawned, and horror twisted his features. He’d looked at Ernestine, hoping that she could bring some understanding of what he was seeing.
Ernestine, though, had had no opportunity to comfort her friend. A movement at the edge of her vision had made her turn her head, and look again up the slope. Two sleek red forms were swiftly moving down towards them, weaving expertly around the gorse bushes. Behind them had come others, flowing rapidly down the hill like a flood towards the defenceless group of rabbits. Ernestine had found it hard to drag her eyes away from the two leading creatures. Their pointed ears and sharp-looking teeth fascinated her. The one on the left had blood, presumably Grizz’s, smearing its muzzle. The one on the right wore a huge grin, as if it was having the most fun that could be had in the whole world.
Ernestine had sat transfixed, and stared helplessly at her approaching doom. Rabbits called this paralysis the Gate of Death – the sheer inability to move that afflicts a rabbit so terrified that it cannot make its muscles work, even to save its life. Humans call it being scared stiff. It did not happen to all rabbits, but it was very common. Ernestine’s state of Gate of Death would quickly lead to her real death if she didn’t receive help.
Cuetip had tried to rouse her, but all he could manage was a stuttering “Er- Er- Er”. Hobb had penetrated her stupor, though. He had shouted her name, butted her with his head, asked her what was happening. His urgent words had snapped her out of her trance.
“Foxes, Hobb! Foxes!” she had cried, urgently, “Get everyone inside, quickly!”
“OK!” said Hobb, glad to be given something definite to do. He had sped off, yelling warnings to anyone who could hear, trying to use the sheer power of his voice to urge them to hide, to run, to get to safety.
“Run, Cuetip, run!” Ernestine had screamed at him. He had glanced briefly back at the approaching foxes, and been alarmed by how close they had come. One of the leaders had stopped, and was tearing at something it had pinned to the ground, but the others would be on him in seconds. With no thought of choosing a direction, he had simply taken to his heels in a panic.
And now he was struggling for his life. As he wriggled on his back, the fox reached him, eyes glinting in anticipation. Luckily it was moving too fast to stop suddenly, and overshot its helpless prey, growling in annoyance. Cuetip frantically squirmed upright, and spotted an oval of darkness beneath nearby gorse. Salvation!
He forced his aching legs into action once more, twisted and ran for the welcoming hole, as a second fox joined the first in the race to kill him. The brief feeling of relief he had felt at spotting the refuge turned to alarm when he saw how far away the burrow actually was.
He felt the hot ground hitting his complaining paws, and could hear the pounding feet of the foxes as they rapidly closed the gap. His breath burned in his chest as he drove his legs faster, and he imagined that he could feel the hot breath of the fox on his back, its jaws open and ready to drive its sharp teeth into his body. The urge to look back was almost unbearable, but he knew that would only slow him down, and so he sped on as fast as he could, wide-eyed and frantic.
A moan of fear grew in his throat, and he willed himself to even greater speed as he neared the burrow entrance, mercifully dark in the glaring sunshine. He flung himself into the shadow, tumbling gratefully head over heels into the welcoming coolness of the burrow. As he rolled, a backwards glance showed a pair of massive jaws with a set of evil teeth snapping into the burrow entrance. Cuetip scuttled further back to a safe distance, then lay on his side, sucking air into his tortured lungs with mighty gasps, and staring at that snarling muzzle, unable to tear his eyes away, imagining what those glistening teeth could have done to him. He had only just made it to safety, and could only hope that everyone else had been quicker than he had.